Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ganges at Night

Outside the sky turned from peach, to pink, to periwinkle as we made our way to the Ghats for an evening boat ride on the Ganges. We were driven to a main crossroad where we had to get out and walk down the long streets that lead from the city down to the Ghats, and finally down to the river itself. The paved streets were lined with vendors selling saffron-hued “Om” scarves and religious figurines. Varanasi is India’s holiest city and religious souvenirs are a booming trade.

We walked past wallahs, street children and holy men – their half-naked bodies painted white – until we reached the steps to the river. In the marigold-colored lamplight, the white stone took on a golden tinge. Varanasi rose vertically from the water in huge man-made cliffs that tower over the flat murky water. The city has been growing up from the Ganges for hundreds of years. Newer buildings are placed on top of crumbling old ones; gods grace the rooftops of some and look out over the river. Children scamper up and down the steps selling floating candles and flowers for believers to set adrift with their wishes into the holy water.

Once in the boat, floating out into the water, I watched the Ghats and the river stretch as far as I could see in either direction. Mist shrouded the edges where the water and towers faded into gray infinity. Veena told us that sections, or Ghats, are divided along the steps for different purposes. There are bathing Ghats where men in loincloths and women in full saris ritually bathe themselves. There are laundry Ghats, which you can tell by the swaths of bright saris and a few pairs of blue jeans that are laid out to dry across the steps. Some Ghats are for cremation. Cloth-wrapped bodies are laid out on a low step, burned to ash, and swept into the river.

As we drifted down river, we approached one of the cremation Ghats and Veena instructs us not to take pictures. Mourners don’t appreciate cameras. We could see bodies wrapped in gold and orange – the colors for men – laid out. Each body will be dipped in the river for one last bathing, then laid out on wood stretchers for burning. Poorer families sometimes struggle to buy enough wood to burn the bodies completely, which is where stories of half-baked body parts floating down the Ganges come from. My imagination made corpses of everything floating past us.

Our boat turned back and I looked over my shoulder at the three hundred year old buildings: their curvy oriental windows and doors, stone carvings, globed and pointed roofs, and steps leading from the river up through stone archways into narrow alleys, shapes in ghostly shades of white stretching up from black water.

As we drifted near a cluster of boats lined up to watch the evening Aarti (prayer), girls scampered across the tops of the boats, leaping from one to the next, carrying baskets of small candles and matches. Most of us bought candles from the girls who, with Veena’s translations, told us how to use them. I silently wished for success in writing to I can do this – go adventuring – for the rest of my life. I’ve never seen such beauty and felt such grace. It is incredible to me that I’m sitting here on the Ganges at dusk, watching pyres burn and bathe the buildings in orange light.
The dark river sparkled with our tiny flames. 

1 comment:

la petite fashionista said...

what an experience! I loved every carefully chosen word & your pictures. I wish that for you too; to be able to travel the world and write; that would be a dream job!